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Citizens at Odds with CDOT over I-25 Improvements

Another top-down/bottom-up debate



Residents of neighborhoods near Interstate 25 between the Bijou and Fillmore exits are increasingly upset over what they claim is a dramatic escalation in traffic noise that safety and capacity-improvement projects have created along that stretch of highway.

As part of the three-year-old construction project, the roadbed has been raised by fully 30 feet where it passes Monument Valley Park. In addition, the roadside has been stripped of an estimated 1,200 noise-filtering trees and shrubs as workers widened the road from two to three lanes and substituted grooved concrete for asphalt as the road's surface.

People living on the West Side, Holland Park, Old North and Near North End neighborhoods say those changes have resulted in increased traffic noise to the point where the quality of life in their neighborhoods and the tranquility of Monument Valley Park are being destroyed.

The complaints, thus far, are anecdotal. In fact, the state maintains that a noise study they conducted does not indicate a severe increase in noise; neighbors contend however, that the state's report is flawed and a more comprehensive environmental study is necessary.

Councilman Ted Eastburn claims that noise from the highway is so bad during morning rush hour that he can't hear the birds singing at his home near the eastern edge of Monument Valley Park.

Roy Ayala, president of the Holland Park Neighborhood Association, says he's been besieged with complaints about I-25 noise, and Old North End resident Ralph Spory insists, "Traffic on I-25 traffic has gotten so loud that it's impossible to sleep with the windows open."

The unhappy neighbors want the Colorado Department of Transportation to lower the noise level by putting sound-absorbing asphalt atop the concrete, by enforcing the 55 mph speed limit, by re-vegetating the roadside and by lining the highway with earth berms topped with sound barriers made of noise-absorbent materials.

They also want further work on the I-25 project put on hold until CDOT conducts a far-reaching study -- called an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS -- that would thoroughly asses the environmental and socio-economic impacts that changes to the highway have made on their neighborhoods.

Flatter, straighter, wider, faster

Neighbors angry about the traffic noise contend the problem could have been averted if the Federal Highway Administration had required CDOT to submit an Environmental Impact Statement before it began work on the I-25 project.

Besides a more thorough assessment of adverse impacts on residential neighborhoods, an EIS would require extensive public hearings about ways to mitigate traffic congestion in Colorado Springs other than widening the interstate. Such alternatives would include expansion of the city's bus service, commuter rail service and creation of an I-25 bypass to the east of the city where most future growth will occur.

Bert Melcher, transportation chairman of the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Sierra Club, blames the current noise problems on a damn-the-torpedoes attitude on the part of FHWA and CDOT that is linked to a "flatter, straighter, wider, faster approach to traffic mitigation."

"CDOT is utilizing a top-down management style that begins with deciding the most efficient solution to traffic problems and then moves to citizen-input as an obligatory afterthought," said Melcher. "The starting point should be the real-life needs of human beings, with planning proceeding out of and around that."

According to Melcher, not only would an Environmental Impact Statement prove the need for noise mitigation, it would force the state to take a more neighborhood-oriented approach to I-25 improvements, advancing citizen input to the front end of the planning process.

The Department of Transportation, though, doesn't want to do an Environmental Impact Statement. Instead, it wants to do an Environmental Assessment -- a kind of study that assesses environmental and socio-economic impacts on a smaller scale, that doesn't require formal consideration of alternatives to widening I-25 and that requires far less citizen input.

Concrete here to stay

Joyce Stivers, president of the Near North End Neighborhood Association, wonders why the feds didn't require the state to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement in the first place. She points to a federal guideline that obligates such a study for any highway project that will "require the relocation of significant numbers of people" and that "involve[s] significant air, noise, or water quality impacts."

The I-25 project, Stivers pointed out, forced the relocation of 224 West Side homes, two businesses and a church in the mid-1990s. The work done since has significantly impacted "noise quality" in every neighborhood adjoining the highway, she said.

The state transportation department regional environmental manager Richard Annand believes, however, that "the meaning of 'significant' is open to interpretation."

"A large number of homes were relocated, granted, but sheer numbers isn't the criteria for significant impact," he said. "It was the judgment of both CDOT and the Federal Highways Authority that relocation wasn't significant impact."

Annand also contends that a CDOT- funded noise study indicated that traffic noise is less severe than the unhappy neighbors are saying. The grooved concrete of the highway is noisier than asphalt, he admitted, but is much more durable.

"Asphalt has a limited life and requires more repairs that disrupt traffic flow," he said.

Cattle in a chute

Annand said an Environmental Assessment will produce "better decision- making" and "a much more open exchange between us and the community."

"An [Environmental Assessment]" he said, "is like people sitting around a table and talking. An [Environmental Impact Statement] is like going to court with lawyers doing the talking."

Councilman Eastburn agrees with the unhappy neighbors, though, that the state needs to adopt more of a more bottom-up, community-inclusive approach to traffic mitigation, with more attention to exploring alternatives to I-25 expansion.

"Los Angeles proves that you can't pave your way out of traffic congestion," he said. "The cattle-in-a-chute model is increasingly inadequate. Our problem is that we haven't developed alternatives. Our bus system is dysfunctional, there's no commuter rail system and bike lanes are laughably inadequate.

"More and more, the automobile is like a new life form. We devote more time, effort and money to preserving the habitat and migratory corridors of the automobile than to preserving habitats for human beings."

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